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FIRST LOOK: Analyzing ESSER Strategy & Spending

How five districts are leveraging ESSER dollars to "Do Now, Build Toward"

As school systems plan their spending strategies for funding from the American Rescue Plan Elementary and Secondary Schools Emergency Relief Fund, few specifics or quantifiable numbers are publicly available in the plans they are submitting to their states. 

But we got a backstage pass. Here, we offer a unique, behind-the-scenes look at how five sample districts tentatively plan to leverage ESSER dollars to take a “Do Now, Build Toward” approach that equitably meets students’ differing needs and lays a foundation for long-term financial sustainability. 

The five districts profiled represent a range of geographic locations and local contexts, but all serve relatively higher proportions of students from low-income backgrounds. As they approached their own ESSER planning and budgeting, these districts shared information and insights about their processes so far, the specific strategies they’re choosing for investment, how they are thinking about equity, and their plans for long-term sustainability.

Additionally, the first-look analysis includes concrete guidance to help public school systems and communities gauge how well their own ESSER plans align with our seven principles for investing ESSER funds.



Use the drop-down menu below to explore current district plans and considerations.

"The idea of ‘Do Now, Build Toward’ means that the strategies districts undertake now should not just be about recovery and they should not just be about immediate redesign. They should take advantage of the window for change to lay the groundwork for a longer-term vision of realizing what we want our districts to be.”

- David Rosenberg, ERS Partner

The Context

District leaders are creating plans for the unprecedented level of funding that they received through the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) federal stimulus package. The window for spending these funds goes through summer 2024. That may seem far off, but in just a few months districts will begin the budgeting process for the 2022-23 school year - the second of the three years left in the ESSER spending window. This means that the decisions districts make this fall are a crucial pathway to ensuring that every student has the high-quality learning experiences and support that they need to thrive.

However, other than a requirement to commit 20 percent of their American Rescue Plan / ESSER III dollars to addressing student learning loss, federal and state guidance on how districts should use these funds is quite broad. Furthermore, to meet most state requirements for approval, districts’ plans do not need to provide a detailed description at the level of budgetary line items, so the publicly available data often does not reflect the full breadth and depth of decisions that district teams are making.

All of this means that we need to look beyond the formal plans that districts are submitting to states to understand how leaders are prioritizing the use of federal funds to build toward a better, more equitable vision of how schools can work for all students. To better understand district leaders’ emerging strategies - and to help inform decision-making in other districts across the country - we worked closely with leaders from five districts to analyze their emerging multi-year strategy and spending plans.  By working closely with leaders from these five district teams, we are able to offer greater detail and deeper insight into their sample of plans than what is otherwise available in submissions to state education agencies. We also gained a deeper understanding of the process around how district leaders are navigating decision-making, which we believe can only be helpful for others making similar decisions.


A Snapshot of the 5 Districts

The five districts that ERS analyzed represent a range of sizes, demographics, and total dollars of ESSER dollars-per-pupil, but all are districts that serve relatively higher proportions of students from low-income backgrounds, and are all receiving significant funds relative to their typical annual budget.

Enrollment ranged from less than 50,000 to more than 100,000, with the percentage of students eligible for free or reduced-price lunch as high as 75 percent to 100 percent, and as low as 25 percent to 50 percent. ESSER dollars per-pupil ranged from a high of $7,500 to a low of $1,500. The percentage of the total operating budget filled by ESSER dollars ranged from a high of 56 percent to a low of 22 percent.


Criteria for analysis

We started with our 7 Principles for Investing ESSER Funds, a framework designed to help districts invest their ESSER funds with a “Do Now, Build Toward” mindset that addresses critical student needs now and lays a foundation for sustainable, lasting improvement. Then, we narrowed the focus of our review of districts’ plans to three of the seven principles:

  1. Invest in proven, high-impact strategies. What strategies are districts choosing to invest their ESSER funds in?
  2. Design for equity. How are districts thinking about equity?
  3. Plan spending for long-term sustainability. How are districts planning to make their investments sustainable?

Note: These preliminary plans do not reflect final allocation decisions. Each district has mapped out potential investments over the next three years and will engage community representatives and measure impact as they solidify investments going forward.


GUIDANCE: Invest in proven, high-impact strategies.

What would success look like?

  • Investments are backed by research.
  • Resources address critical student needs now, while also laying a foundation for continued, lasting improvement.
  • Investments in facility upgrades, technology, and safety create conditions needed for students’ development and strong student learning experiences. 

We have identified five research-backed overarching “Power Strategies” for districts to focus their ESSER investments and planning:

  1. Empowering, Adaptable Instruction: For students to experience empowering curriculum that is motivating, appropriately-challenging, and that meets their unique needs, districts and schools need a high-quality, culturally relevant curriculum, time and expertise for teachers to collaborate and check-in on student learning, and support that is differentiated and adjustable to meet students’ distinct needs. 
  2. Time & Attention: For students - especially those with the greatest needs - to engage in learning that meets their distinct needs, districts and schools need to explore new ways to expand and vary the time and individualized attention they receive inside and outside of school hours.
  3. The Teaching Job: For students to experience engaging, high-quality instruction in a supportive environment, districts and schools need to prioritize ways to make teaching jobs and roles more rewarding, collaborative, and sustainable. 
  4. Relationships & Social-Emotional Support: For students to feel safe and supported in school, districts and schools need structures that cultivate strong, positive relationships and streamline staff’s ability to meet students’ social and emotional needs.
  5. Family & Community Partnerships: To increase academic, health, social, and emotional support for students, districts and schools need to engage families as partners and leverage the local community to provide holistic supports.


Not all five districts have planned all of their money.

Districts have submitted their ESSER II plans, but some are still in the process of planning their American Rescue Plan / ESSER III dollars. Districts C and D have not yet share preliminary plans for ESSER III fund, and District E plans to use their remaining dollars to support unfinished learning. See Figure 1 for details.

Figure 1.


Most districts are planning to direct the majority of their ESSER funds toward the five Power Strategies, with a focus on Time & Attention.

Figure 2 shows how each of the five districts are tentatively planning to allocate ESSER dollars toward Power Strategies, as well as to foundational investments* outside of Power Strategies, such as health and safety, facilities upgrades, technology, new virtual school models, hiring central office positions, and maintaining current staffing levels despite declining enrollment. Figure 2 also shows how in three of the five districts, expanding time and attention makes up more than 30 percent of planned spending.

Figure 2.


Among time and attention investments: all five districts plan to invest in summer learning opportunities, and four plan to invest in small group instruction.

Addressing unfinished learning as a result of the pandemic is a priority for all districts. Figure 3 shows that five districts in this analysis plan to invest in summer learning opportunities, four plan to invest in small group instruction, and two plan to invest in extending the school day/year.

Figure 3.

Despite expectations that districts would invest heavily in tutoring as a tool for addressing unfinished learning, so far, only three of the five districts are planning to invest in that strategy at all. One district chose not to invest in tutoring now because dollars meant for that strategy in the spring went largely unused. The district is not ruling out tutoring entirely, but is considering an approach that hires external academic teachers , who then may be able to grow and attain credentials over the three years, creating a stronger teacher pipeline in the district.


Districts are leaving placeholders in their ESSER plans for future years, allowing time to measure what works before committing all of their ESSER funds.

Figure 4 shows that an increasingly larger portion of District E’s ESSER II/III allocation is not yet planned. The district intends to direct those dollars toward addressing unfinished learning, but they will solidify those investments over the course of the next two years, as they learn more about students’ needs and measure the impact of their current investments. 

Figure 4.

GUIDANCE: Design for equity.

What would success look like?

  • Disrupt patterns of inequity. Assemble data and reflect on the systems, structures, and practices that contribute to inequitable experiences and outcomes for students - and invest ways your new investments can work to correct them.
  • Engage educators, students, and families. As you develop plans to gather information, insights, perspectives, and preferences from people who best understand students’ needs.
  • Target resources thoughtfully. Carefully consider which investments should be applied across all schools or all students in the same way, and which should be targeted or differentiated based on your analysis of how needs vary.


District E is planning for equity by using a need-based tiering system.

District E is working to disrupt patterns of inequity by targeting some ESSER resources to schools based on need. To determine where the most pressing needs exist, the district created a need index based on pre-COVID factors, including:

  • Percent of students eligible for free or reduced-price lunch
  • Student proficiency rates in English language arts
  • Student proficiency rates in math
  • Teacher experience levels (the percent of teachers with less than 3 years of experience)
  • Percent of English language learners
  • Percent of students with disabilities
  • Percent of students of color

The district then weighted these index factors to build a three-tiered system for distributing resources:

  • Tier 1 schools: Highest need; 25 percent of students
  • Tier 2 schools: 21 percent of students
  • Tier 3 schools: Lowest need; 54 percent of students

Figure 5 shows how District E plans to direct 17 percent of ESSER money for Power Strategies based on its school-based, three-tiered system -prioritizing Tier 1 and Tier 2.

Figure 5.

In Figure 6 you can see how District E plans to provide additional resources to students with the greatest needs, and how that compares to spending pre-ESSER.

Figure 6.

Before ESSER, the highest-need schools in District E received 16 percent more than the lowest-need schools on a per-pupil basis. With ESSER, the highest-need schools would receive 1.28x more than lowest-need schools on a per-pupil basis. Similarly, before ESSER, students who received free or reduced-price lunch experienced 5 percent more funding than students who did not receive free or reduced-price lunch - with ESSER funding, this would increase to 11 percent. 


District E is prioritizing its equity-focused spending on improving the teaching job, and increasing time and attention for students.

Figure 7 shows how dollars might be used to build teacher capacity and accelerate learning recovery in schools in the highest tiers of need. District E is weighing hiring approximately 350 full-time positions. These roles would support teachers by enhancing collaboration practices and building their capacity, as well as create smaller group sizes to support students who are behind grade-level. District E plans to sunset these positions at the end of ESSER and move these teacher leaders back into full-time teaching roles.

Figure 7.


Plans are active, iterative, and can change - and decisions about funds not yet planned could have a large effect on overall per-pupil funding.

In its original plan, District E budgeted for all ESSER dollars, but as they got further into the process, they pulled back to ensure they had sufficient runway and were being realistic about who they could hire. The district directed funds for roughly 350 positions but is cautious about putting additional funds toward school-based personnel given: 1) labor market constraints, and 2) sustainability concerns. District leaders are currently engaging the community and families to plan for the upcoming school years and to determine spending strategies, including how to allocate the remaining 21 percent of ESSER dollars.

Ultimately, decisions about the funds not yet planned could have a significant impact on overall per-pupil funding in District E. Figure 8 shows how per-pupil funding would play out across schools if funds are allocated differently bases on the district’s equity index moving forward. If District E allocates their remaining 20 percent of funds using their need-based tiering system, students in the highest-need schools would receive 1.4x more than students in lowest-need schools on a per pupil basis.

Figure 8.

GUIDANCE: Plan spending for long-term sustainability.

What would success look like?

  • Size the full cost of implementing strategies over time. Go beyond face value to consider all of the cost components associated with implementing the strategy well.
  • Integrate all funding sources and stretch the window for investment. Build coherence between new investments and existing ones, including by accelerating or deepening the existing investments that are most aligned with your district’s recovery needs.
  • Invest in building bridges to new ways of organizing. For example, deepen investments in relationship-building and social-emotional learning by freeing up spending from punitive discipline practices.
  • Plan out how spending and organization will shift to sustain critical investments over time. Identify which expenditures will go away over time, and which ones will stay and shift over time. 

ERS recommends that investments that are not intended to extend beyond the ESSER funding period should meet a strategic threshold or should not be undertaken. Good short-term investments ideally meet the following criteria:

  • Address an urgent, short-term need.
  • Build capacity of individuals, systems, and processes.
  • Address start-up costs or one-time investments.
  • Catalyze (or buy time for) long-term resource shifts.


ESSER gives districts a three-year runway to implement a “Do Now, Build Toward” approach.

Districts will want to sustain many of the changes they’re funding with ESSER dollars long-term because they enable strategies - such as tutoring or increasing time for teacher teams - that were needed to accelerate learning and advance equitable outcomes even before the pandemic. Therefore, districts will need to use their temporary dollars to target both near-term COVID-recovery needs and lay the groundwork for longer-term redesign. By focusing on both, district leaders will have already done the work of shifting resources and changing underlying cost structures to enable these new ways of working to continue even when the ESSER funding window ends.

As Figure 9 shows, when it comes to long-term sustainability, there are three conceptual scenarios - ERS recommends the third approach.

Figure 9.

In Figure 9, light green represents 100 percent of dollars or the cost of current strategies. Dark blue represents recovery investments - the things that are likely to spike and then go away by design, such as the continued health and safety investments associated with physical distancing. Finally, light blue represents redesign investments - the things that will fundamentally change the experience of students and teachers.

Scenario one is the “ramp up and ramp down” approach. There is no redesign involved because there is no money to sustain new investments after the three-year ESSER funding period. The investments will simply stop, and the district will return to previous strategies. 

Scenario two is a “roll-the-dice” strategy in which districts invest money into redesign without adjusting the existing cost structures - they ride out the three-year ESSER funding period, but are then forced to find more money. This creates a fiscal cliff.

The third scenario is a “Do Now, Build Toward” approach that follows ERS’ Seven Principles for Investing ESSER Funds. With a vision to “Build Toward” and sustainable underlying cost structures in place, spending can revert to pre-COVID levels. The hardest part of this approach is figuring out which current strategies (light green) can be rolled back so that redesign strategies (light blue) can be rolled into future budgets in sustainable ways.

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